PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Earlier this month, Steven Matz, along with his parents, Lori and Ron, piled into a truck for the 19-hour drive from East Setauket to the next step in his life.
Matz could have been any 18-year-old leaving home for the first time, bursting with nervous energy, anxious to move outside his comfort zone.
Lori and Ron, meanwhile, shared the same apprehension that every parent feels when a son or daughter is about to take that next step toward becoming an adult.
But in this case, Matz was not some eager college freshman. The truck packed with luggage and parents? A 2010 Ford F150 Raptor, purchased with a cut from the $895,000 signing bonus Matz received from the Mets last June as the 72nd overall pick in the draft.
As for the education, Matz passed on the traditional dorm-and-study hall variety when he turned down a scholarship from Coastal Carolina and agreed to pitch in the organization of his favorite team. But the learning process is only beginning for Matz, who wanted to drive himself to Florida for spring training - until his mom did, well, what moms do.
"It was just like dropping him off at college," Lori said, "and I wasn't going to be the kind of parent that doesn't drop off their kid at college."
There are other similarities, with a few big differences. Matz lives a dormitory-style life in an extended-stay hotel the Mets use as the base of operations for their minor-leaguers. Dinner is served every night at 7 p.m. - and curfew is at 11.
Matz is expected to be at the team's complex by 9 a.m. That's when a long parade of sleepy-eyed players from just about every baseball-playing region on the globe filters into the no-frills clubhouse.
This is not the majors - far from it. Tradition Field, where the Mets play during spring training, is barely visible from the doorstep of the minor-league clubhouse. The parking lot is loose gravel. There are no TVs and no attendants to handle your every whim. The concrete walls are covered with motivational baseball slogans.
It's where baseball becomes a job - but still one of the best jobs on the planet. In what other office do you get to slip on a white Mets uniform with your favorite No. 23 on the back?
"It's pretty cool," Matz said.
The Mets handle almost every minute of Matz's day. From breakfast in the clubhouse to time spent on the trainer's table to cardio work in the weight room to long-tossing on a back field in the afternoon.
Early on, before the extended spring training games start, the workouts usually end at about 2:30 p.m., so Matz may head over to a pond near the PGA golfing center with a few other players to fish. Or he might hit some balls over at the driving range.
Then it's dinner, and curfew, and the alarm going off at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, giving Matz a half-hour to shower, dress and make the 10-minute drive to the minor-league complex.
At this stage, the Mets are taking it slow with Matz, and it will be another week or two before he starts his bullpen sessions.
After he returned to Long Island in November from the Instructional League at the Mets' baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, Matz spent most of his offseason working out at the Professional Athletic Performance Center in Garden City. Jose Reyes, the Saints' Marques Colston and the Nationals' John Lannan are among the large crowd that uses the popular training facility.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for Matz as he begins his pro career is to be patient. The former Ward Melville star won the Yastrzemski Award as Suffolk's top player last year and is accustomed to success coming fast. At this level, however, it can take a little longer, especially when you're starting at 18.
At 6-4 and 195 pounds, with a powerful delivery that enables him to throw in the mid-90s, the lefthander is highly regarded, which is why the Mets will proceed slowly with him. After extended spring training, Matz likely will stay in Port St. Lucie with the Mets' Gulf Coast League team, or head to the Kingsport, Tenn. (Appalachian League) rookie team. But that has yet to be determined.
"They're telling me they don't want me to go out and try to blow it up," Matz said. "They don't want me to throw out my arm. They want me to take it nice and slow. They know what I can do."
Even signing autographs can be exhausting. Shortly after Matz returned to Long Island at the end of November, a representative of the Topps Company showed up and had him sign 2,000 of his freshly minted baseball cards. It took almost four hours - and the Topps rep supervised the entire process to make sure the signed cards were authentic.
It's all part of the education. His mother recalled how in August, at the end of his first season in the Mets' organization, Matz talked to her from a hotel room where he was hanging out with a few of his new Dominican teammates, watching Spanish-language shows on TV.
It was a good moment for a mom, hearing her son talk excitedly about new experiences, with many more ahead that someday could lead Matz back to New York again - to the mound at Citi Field.
"He's worked hard all offseason and he's in great shape," Ron said. "I think he's champing at the bit to get going."